In the spring of 1964 the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) joined forces with the Young Women’s Christian Association, the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Council of Catholic Women, and Church Women United in an effort to foster communication and racial understanding between northern and southern women and among black and white women in the South. These organizations ultimately collaborated to work for racial equality through an interracial, interfaith project, Wednesdays in Mississippi (WIMS). The group mobilized to show support for Mississippi individuals who were engaged in social activism, to encourage additional black and white women to become involved, to facilitate interracial understanding, and to encourage activism in their communities.
The project grew out of a three-day meeting the organizations convened in Atlanta in March 1964 to discuss ways to help women and youth who were being arrested in the South for civil rights activism. Each organization invited local leaders from southern cities that were viewed as having significant racial tensions and where at least one of the sponsoring organizations was firmly established. During the proceedings, Jackson’s Clarie Collins Harvey, representing Church Women United and the NCNW, drew attention to the conditions in Mississippi and to the local activists, black and white, who were unaware of each other’s activism because of segregation. Harvey argued that a national organization from outside the state would be most effective at initiating efforts to challenge southern segregation. Therefore, Harvey proposed that northern women visit Mississippi during the upcoming Freedom Summer to help build communication between the black and white communities.
The NCNW’s president, Dorothy Height, returned to Washington, D.C., and conveyed the meeting’s proceedings to colleague Polly Cowan, who suggested recruiting women of various organizations to implement Harvey’s proposal. The NCNW agreed to sponsor the program, with participation from all of the organizations present at the March meeting as well as the League of Women Voters and the American Association of University Women. Womanpower Unlimited, which Harvey had founded in May 1961, would serve as one of the project’s anchors in Mississippi, providing contacts and resources.
For seven weeks during the summer, teams of six or eight northern black and white women participating in WIMS flew to Jackson on Tuesday, spent Wednesday visiting Freedom Summer projects in different cities, returned to Jackson that night for rallies or meetings, and departed Thursday morning. In 1964 the program included forty-eight women representing a cross-section of women’s organizations, religious affiliations, and professions. The project also included a local staff in Mississippi and a national staff in New York.
After the summer visits WIMS women wrote articles for newspapers and organizational newsletters, lectured about their experiences, raised money, and sent supplies to the Mississippi projects, providing much-needed materials for freedom schools and community centers. In addition, participants paved the way for greater communication among local women while connecting the local efforts with the national civil rights agenda. This success led to the decision to continue the WIMS trips the following summer.
In 1965 WIMS took on a more active role. Forty-seven women who participated were charged with assisting in the desegregation of the state in compliance with Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited “discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin.” Toward this end, their activities included door-to-door canvassing to encourage school integration; meeting with teachers, librarians, and social workers; and working with Head Start programs. WIMS participants and staff also trained teachers for arts education, assisted with the organization of a chapter of Mississippians for Public Education in Philadelphia, and fostered dialogue between black and white educators and professionals.
After the 1965 trips, the NCNW broadened its endeavors to promote similar activism in other southern cities as well as in the North. Wednesdays in Mississippi subsequently became Workshops in Mississippi, an ongoing effort with a focus on economic development for poor blacks and whites.
- Debbie Harwell, Wednesdays in Mississippi: Proper Ladies Working for Radical Change (2016)
- Tiyi Makeda Morris, Womanpower Unlimited and the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi (2015)